Tuesday, 3 October 2017

How should we approach rewilding?

John Hiskett, Senior Conservation Officer

Rewilding. The term is often used but the practice varies from less intensive management of existing nature reserves to George Monbiot’s vison of uplands and the large scale projects in continental Europe where whole landscapes are being returned to a pre-industrial farming model.

One model, closer to home, is that followed by the Knepp Estate in Sussex which I had the opportunity to visit in early September. Knepp covers 3,500 acres set in rolling countryside between The Weald and South Downs and has been developing as a rewilding project since 2002.

At first glance, Knepp appears to be like any other area of grazed farmland but it soon becomes clear that things are very different. Hedges are wide and sprawling and in early September covered in berries unlike the closely trimmed hedges of most farmland. Fields are largely unfenced and grazing animals are free to wander between them. Many fields are developing a patchwork of hawthorn and blackthorn dominated scrub with willow in wetter areas.

The re-wilding experiment is driven by grazing animals, which include Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, red, roe and fallow deer and Tamworth pigs, which are left to roam free within 3 large enclosures. These animals are frequently encountered but are fairly sparsely scattered throughout the project area. This has led to welcome but unplanned increases in the ecological value of the area. Benefits of the increase in scrub has resulted in Knepp currently holding one of the largest breeding concentrations of nightingales in Britain, and becoming the top purple emperor breeding site in the UK. In addition turtle doves, which are in steep decline elsewhere, are increasing.

The economic model at Knepp includes agri-environment payments, income from safaris and income from a camping and glamping site which has been established in recent years, along with income from sales of free range meat. This latter highlights a major difference between Knepp and other well-known rewilding projects such as Oostvaardersplassen in Netherlands. At Knepp numbers of grazers are controlled by culling with the resulting organic free range meat adding to the income of the estate, whereas at Oostvaardersplassen grazing animals are left to live and die naturally. However, the lack of predators means that numbers are very high, giving the impression at first glance of herds of animals in African savannah. As a result, Oostvaardersplassen has progressed from a landscape with large numbers of trees and areas of scrub, when I first visited 10 years ago to almost bare grassland due to overgrazing, as was apparent on a visit earlier this year. In comparison at Knepp where numbers are artificially controlled through culling, well wooded parkland is developing with high biodiversity value.

What lessons are there for re-wilding projects elsewhere? The different forms of re-wilding all have their place and new projects should seek to use the most appropriate model. Oostvaardersplassen is attempting to create wholly wild landscape but absence of predators means that numbers of grazing animals have increased to a level which some argue is having a detrimental effect on the ecology of the habitat. In contrast at Knepp and other similar projects there is a return is to a more extensively managed landscape that is rich in some of the biodiversity that has been lost over much of lowland Britain as a result of agricultural intensification in recent decades. However, this model may need to be modified in areas where sensitive and rare habitats require management intervention if they are to persist in their current form.


Although bigger is obviously better it would be possible to establish extensive management at a smaller scale than at Knepp and one could argue that NWT and others are already doing this in places such as Roydon and Grimston Common. A Living Landscape in a farmed lowland landscape could be made up of large nature reserves and areas of extensively managed farmland linked by wildlife rich ecological corridors.


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  2. A very interesting article, John. I have not been to Oostvaardersplassen but have seen the video. i think Gilbert has been. Yes, the ecology is unnatural there because of the lack of wolf, lynx, etc, with Malthusian processes operating to limit numbers. The Knepp estate is using humans as apex predator. Your article has made me want to visit the place - thanks! As for landscape-scale rewilding in Norfolk, it's all down to landowners - just one major landowner such as Holkham could make a massive difference. The ideas need to get out, and places like Knepp are inspiring. Significantly, a change in EU payments kick-started the story there. I'd be interested in your analysis of the threats/opportunities offered by Brexit. BTW, come and see my garden some time - it's pretty wild !!